One of my favorite columnists is Jeff Jacoby who writes a weekly column for The Boston Globe. Jeff Jacoby is a conservative, and I believe that the is either an Orthodox Jew or a Conservative Jew. His columns usually, when they do occasionally touch upon subject relating to the Catholic faith or the Catholic Church, express a sympathetic attitude toward the position of the Church on the subject.

His most recent column, however takes up the subject of priestly celibacy and, while the column generally expresses a sympathetic view of priestly celibacy, he clearly believes that the Latin Catholic Church ought to abandon its almost two milennia-long tradition of priestly celibacy in favor a married clergy.

Almost within a matter of minutes after I read Jacoby’s column I read another by Carl Olson of Ignatius
Olson contrasts two basic views of vows and offers us some insight into the thinking of those who criticize the Church’s discipline of priestly celibacy. I am not suggesting that Jacoby holds the ‘animal view’ but Olson’s article does perhaps reveal the pitfall of so many non-Catholic writers.
Here is Olson’s article:


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Thursday, May 07, 2009
“Make your vows to the LORD your God, and perform them”

There are two basic views on vows.

One view is put forth by CBS Early Show co-host Maggie Rodriguez, who, while interviewing CBS religion analyst Father Thomas Williams, said:
The Catholic Church, as you know, has been criticized, and you and I have talked about this, for being outdated and losing both parishioners and people who may want to serve, because it is so rigid. Do you think it’s time for the Catholic Church to reconsider the vow of celibacy that it requires of its priests?

Rodriguez and Fr. Williams were talking about the case of Fr. Alberto Cutie, a priest in southern Florida who was recently photographed snuggling and cuddling with a woman on the beach. (Fr. Cutie is apparently known to some by the curious nickname, “Padre Oprah”.) A bit later Rodriguez asks Fr. Williams:
I guess what people might be curious about is why this vow of celibacy is so important. Isn’t it almost setting a nearly impossible standard? You, as a man, as a human being, isn’t that a difficult vow to keep?

I’ll call this the “animal view” of vows, by which I mean it is primarily based in an anthropology focused on base needs and primal desires, mostly physical in nature. In the animal view, whatever seems to keep someone from fulfilling their natural desires—often described as “personal fulfillment”—is unnecessary and likely “unhealthy.” A vow of chastity or celibacy is seen as a cage and a form of imprisonment; in addition, it is understood as demeaning or even antagonistic toward sex. Since sex is understood (correctly) as something good and natural, it is assumed (incorrectly) that abstaining from sex is bad and unnatural.

Of course, if we are simply complex animals whose passions and natural desires point us unerringly to what is most important and vital for us, the animal view makes sense. The animal view would say that vows are fine and dandy to the degree that they help us find “personal fulfillment” and, perhaps, aid us in getting along with others. Wedding vows, then, are nice because they express a certain romantic sentiment and help us feel good about ourselves and our spouses; naturally, if those feelings and needs change (as, alas, they often do), the vow goes to the wayside. (“We love each other very much,” someone I know recently said about getting divorced, “but when it comes to being in a relationship with each other, we aren’t compatible.”) It served a purpose, but it makes no sense to force yourself or someone else to adhere to it if it threatens to stifle or thwart your desires.

In the World According to Oprah, one of the darkest sins of all is to fail to be “true to yourself.” In her recent interview with Ted Haggard, for instance, Oprah was clearly most bothered by Haggard’s refusal to say he is homosexual and is thus “living a lie”. A summary of the show captures the essence of the discussion:
Gayle and Oprah debated on the show on the topic of choice and sexuality. Gayle viewed the issue as people have the choice of their inclinations, while Oprah disagreed and stated that people should not deny who they truly are. Ted found a way to say that both Oprah and his wife were correct – that people can be true to themselves and also have options for personal responsibility. Oprah stated that the personal responsibility comes in not denying oneself, but in not lying about it. The choice is not in who you are, but in the choice of presenting your true self to the world.

Since people have sexual urges and desires, the animal view of vows concludes that a vow of celibacy is inherently disingenuous; after all, people who take a vow of celibacy (not just priests, of course, but religious, lay people, etc.) are denying “who they truly are”—men and women with sexual desires. Thus, such vows, despite being made freely, are “rigid” and “impossible” to keep. (One wonders, by the way, what Oprah would do with someone who said they are being true to themselves by being a pedophile or by being incestuous. My guess is that she would rightly denounce pedophilia and incest as wrong, but would be unable to explain adequately why. After all, if a brother and sister “really love” one another and are adults, how can they be denied their “right” to be “who they truly are”?)

It’s not just that sexual pleasure/”fulfillment” has, for many, become the highest good. There is also a complete failure to comprehend the ecclesial, public, and social nature of vows. As Christianity has been pushed more and more from the public square, and as many Christians have acquiesced to the animal view the meaning and importance of vows have obviously suffered; they have been severed from their covenantal and religious roots. The Pentateuch states:
When a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Num 30:2)

And the Psalmist writes:
I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the LORD, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD! (Psa. 116:18-19)

Make your vows to the LORD your God, and perform them; let all around him bring gifts to him who is to be feared… (Psa 76:11)

These express the second view on vows, what I’ll call the “animating view.” This view holds that vows are animated by a desire for something greater than ourselves and that we should be animated by Someone greater than ourselves in pursuing and keeping those vows. “A vow is a deliberate and free promise,” states the Catechism (quoting the Code of Canon Law), “made to God concerning a possible and better good which must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion” (par 2102).

The animal view of vows is, in the end, decidedly self-serving, selfish, and base. The animating view is selfless, sacrificial, and transcendent. The animal view of vows holds that social structures and cultural institutions exist to serve my needs, while the animating view recognizes that my needs are best served when I serve the sunum bonnum, the highest Good, and when I support, by my vows and all that flows from them, the structures and institutions that serve the common good. The Catholic Church, for those holding to some form of the animal view, is repressive and anti-person for insisting—in doctrine and discipline—that there is a Good transcending man’s natural needs and desires.

While priestly celibacy is not an issue of doctrine (it is a discipline, and many priests in the Eastern churches are married), it is a discipline squarely rooted in doctrine: first and foremost in the existence of God, the Creator who deserves our praise and adoration, and in the reality of the eschaton and eternity, toward which all vows are finally oriented and find their fulfillment. As Fr. Williams noted in his response to Rodriguez, it is also based in the example of Christ, who lived for and died for his Bride, the Church (see Eph. 5:23-33), and whose great gift toman is a sharing in the life of the Triune God. Those who take vows of marriage enter into an embrace that expresses, with their entire being, their complete gift of themselves to the other; they also state, by their actions, their assent to God’s plan and purpose for marriage.

Those who take vows as priests or religious also enter into an embrace and it is meant to also be expressed with their entire being; this embrace of celibacy, far from denying the good of sexual union, says, “There is a marriage and a union that is greater than any earthly marriage or physical union, to which we are all called—and I am a living sign, on earth and in my mortal body, of that heavenly calling and celestial union.”

This truth as it relates to the priesthood was beautifully expressed in an Ignatius Insight article, “The Priest as Man, Priest, and Father,” by Fr. John Cihak:
A priest strives to love the Church with the Heart of Jesus. His is a husband’s love. The priest’s spousal relationship with the Church is the foundation for his promise of life-long celibate chastity. The priest’s spousal relationship is expressed in the promises he makes at ordination of celibacy, obedience, and prayer, as well as in his striving after the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, which the diocesan priest does not vow explicitly but which nevertheless constitute the pastoral charity of Jesus’ own priesthood. To participate in Christ’s spousal relationship to the Church means that his life must conform to the way in which Christ loved his spouse: through the total sacrificial gift of Himself on the Cross. “Model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross,” the priest is told at ordination when the bishop places the chalice and paten in his hands.

The priest’s spousal love for the Church, like Christ’s and that of all Christian marriages, is necessarily both unitive and procreative in a spiritual way. The priest strives to become one with his Bride the Church in imitation of the way Christ is one with His Bride. He offers her his mind (1 Cor 1:16) and his oneness with the Father (1 Cor 3:23). He nurtures, protects and loves her as His own flesh (Eph 5:28-30). The unitive aspect of his spousal love can be found in the Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity he makes before receiving Holy Orders. He swears before God that he will hold as his own what his Bride holds as her own, that he will allow her to define him and his convictions.

Rodriguez, in making her comments to Fr. Williams, apparently failed to consider that vows, by their very nature, are actually meant to be difficult and are meant to take us beyond ourselves. (Would she, I wonder, ask a world-class athlete, “Isn’t it hard for you, as a man, to train everyday as long and as hard as you do?” Would she question the devotion of such an athlete?) Does she really think that the vow of marriage is made easier because married couples have sexual intercourse—as though sexual intercourse, by itself, assures a perfect and happy marriage? (Yes, cue and play laugh track here.) Sadly, the animal view of vows is also naive about both vows and human nature. The animal view settles for what is base and easy, and does not, for various reasons, take up the challenge to be fully human, a challenge that can only be accepted and accomplished through Christ, who “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et spes, 22).

Related Articles and Excerpts:

• Angelo Roncalli and Priestly Celibacy | Fr. Brian Van Hove, S.J.
• Clerical Celibacy: Concept and Method | Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler | From The Case for Clerical Celibacy
• The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest
• The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak
• Women and the Priesthood: A Theological Reflection | Jean Galot, S.J. | From Theology of the Priesthood
• Who Is A Priest? | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
• The Real Reason for the Vocation Crisis | Rev. Michael P. Orsi
• Pray the Harvest Master Sends Laborors | Rev. Anthony Zimmerman
• Priestly Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler
• The Role of the Laity: An Examination of Vatican II and Christifideles Laici | Carl E. Olson

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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